Tue, Oct 21, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Fijian tribe says sorry for eating missionary

CANNIBALISM The Reverend Thomas Baker was killed and eaten in 1867 while his group was spreading the word of God in a remote part of the Pacific island group


Fiji, once called the "Cannibal Islands," will next month confront its dark past when chiefs of a remote village perform a traditional ceremony of apology for killing and eating an English missionary.

The village, now known as Navatusila, is expected to present heaps of whale teeth and mats to descendants of Reverend Thomas Baker, killed in 1867.

"I can understand the interest -- I mean we used to eat each other and that must be interesting in this day and age," current Navosa paramount chief Kuini Vuikaba Speed said. "We are fortunate we now live in an environment free of that practice."

Formerly known as Naqaqadelavatu, the village is located in a remote part of Navosa province. It was the most beautiful part of the interior some 900m above sea level, dotted with ravines and streams.

Baker, an Englishman born in Playden, Sussex, who was sent in to the interior after working in Fiji since 1859, presented a whale's tooth to chief Nawawabalavu on arrival. Presenting a tooth usually guaranteed safe passage and protection from the ferocious hill tribes, known for their merciless killings.

"I wish to do good by the people," the missionary wrote in his last letter to his wife two days before he and his group were surrounded and killed by 30 men. "If I do not go now, I shall never go."

Chief Nawawabalavu told Baker he did not like Christianity and vowed never to change. But he accepted the whale's tooth and agreed to guide the party towards the coast.

Baker's story is told in letters he dispatched before continuing into the hills and a diary, now bound and kept in trust by the Fiji Museum library.

The records show he was optimistic about continuing safely as there was no visible war or antagonistic attitude from villages he was passing through.

"I think much about you and the little ones, especially Alice," Baker wrote to his wife. "I do not fear the natives and we hope to do them good. Kiss the children for me, all of them and tell them to pray for me. If I can accomplish this, I shall be the lion of the day."

He had his first brush with hostile natives while sailing towards Bua, northeast of the main island. Natives, fresh from a tribal war, sailed alongside Baker's canoe hurling abuse.

"I thought Fiji had not yet stained its shores with a missionary blood. Am I to be the first?" he wrote.

His aide Setareki Suileka noticed lights moving toward the village as Baker slept, records say, as a nearby chief sent word that he wanted the missionary dead.

When Baker spotted more people converging towards Naqaqadelavatu, he knew he was in trouble.

"Lads, let us be quick or we shall be killed," he urged his group, according to records passed down from two people who survived the attack.

But they were led outside the village by chief Nawawabalavu and Baker was struck down with a long-handled tomahawk along with seven others.

The bodies were rolled into ravines but later retrieved from a river. Baker's body was placed on top of the pile of cadavers and, according to museum records, it was butchered on a flat rock at the village stream.

One woman however scolded her people for the senseless murders and performed Fijian rites on the three men before they were feasted upon. Later Naqaqadelavatu was demolished by its own people, who believed they were cursed.

The apology next month will not be the first. In 1903, the chief's son spoke with "distress and pain" as he asked the church to forgive the murders organized by his father.

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